The Election of Pope Francis is informative and captivating—and raises many questions

Gerard O’Connell is one of the top Vaticanistas working today. An associate editor and Vatican correspondent for America magazine, he has rightly earned a reputation for his fair and in-depth reporting. While his sympathies skew in a more progressive direction, he avoids the ideological blinders and baggage often seen in the work of other Vatican commentators, such as Austen Ivereigh, Robert Mickens, and Massimo Faggioli.

In his recent book The Election of Pope Francis: An Inside Account of the Conclave That Changed History, O’Connell turns his considerable talents to the 2013 Conclave that elected Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as the first Jesuit pope. O’Connell’s book is a page-turner packed with genuine insights from his deep reporting. In addition, O’Connell’s personal connection to Pope Francis makes the story richer. O’Connell is married to Elisabetta Piqué, an Argentinian Vatican correspondent who has known Cardinal Bergoglio for years. Cardinal Bergoglio baptized their children. And just days before he was elected pope, Cardinal Bergoglio ate with the family.

There are many virtues of O’Connell’s book, but perhaps the greatest is that it draws together disparate facts and threads into one cohesive narrative. You may have heard bits and pieces of this story before. But to have it all drawn together in one place is a great gift. Finally, reading the book raises certain questions that are beyond O’Connell’s scope but, nevertheless, await the attention of future historians and journalists.

A surprise resignation

O’Connell’s book begins with Pope Benedict’s shocking announcement on February 11, 2013 that he was going to resign the papacy effective February 28, 2013. O’Connell writes that “Benedict XVI had kept the cardinals and other officials of the Roman Curia, the Vatican’s civil service, totally in the dark regarding his decision. It was the best-kept secret in a pontificate marked by leaks.”

The effect of the papal resignation on the College of Cardinals was significant. O’Connell states, that for “the first time in more than seven hundred years,” the College “would enter the pre-conclave meetings . . . free to focus entirely on the current situation in the Church and the world.” Indeed, in O’Connell’s opinion, “Benedict’s resignation opened the way to a frank and unrestrained pre-conclave discussion.” But his unexpected resignation also meant that the “time for advance canvassing” for a candidate was “radically reduced.”

This was in contrast to the 2005 Conclave, when groups had gathered a head of steam for their preferred candidates. In particular, O’Connell discusses the Sankt Gallen group—a coterie of “progressive” European cardinals who “met periodically from 1995 to 2006” to discuss the state of the Church and who might serve as pope to advance their view of the Church. On the eve of the 2005 conclave, the “cardinals linked to the Sankt Gallen group and others too concluded that Bergoglio was the candidate best suited to be the next pope.” While the group was no longer meeting in 2013, many were still alive and active.

Post-announcement and the interregnum

O’Connell shares the day-to-day reporting of and handicapping by the media regarding who the next potential pope might be after Pope Benedict’s resignation announcement. Most of the names are familiar; some are not. It is also interesting to see how split the reporting was with respect to Cardinal Bergoglio. Some media suggested he was a dark horse candidate. Others, like O’Connell himself, believed Bergoglio was viable. Surprisingly, many media did not have him on their radar even though he was runner up to Cardinal Ratzinger in the 2005 Conclave.

The General Congregations—the meetings of the elector and non-voting cardinals during the interregnum—were, according to O’Connell, “of great importance in the pre-election period, because they provide[d] an opportunity for cardinals to get to know each other. Very many cardinals do no know their brother cardinals, and certainly not in depth.” Furthermore, with a vacant See of Peter, the cardinals felt “free to speak boldly and say what [was] on their minds regarding the last pontificate.”

The General Congregations began on Monday, March 4, 2013. That day Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the Capuchin preacher of the Pontifical Household, gave the first of two mediations required by the constitution for a papal election. During his meditation, Fr. Cantalamessa “among, other things . . . raised two important issues he believed the cardinals should address in these meetings: the question of communion for the divorced and remarried, and the question of the ordination of mature married men to the priesthood.”

O’Connell writes that many “foreign cardinals, but also several Italians, were looking to elect a pope who could govern, clean house, and bring order in the Roman Curia. They wanted to a pope who could bring transparency to Vatican finances and ensure that the Vatican would incentivize rather obstruct the preaching of the Gospel.” An anonymous cardinal stated that they needed to elect a pope “who knows how to reform the Curia and make it more credible and transparent.” Cardinal Kasper was of like-mind as well. He stated that “the reform of the Curia is a priority.”

On Saturday, March 9, 2013, the turning point occurred. At the penultimate session of the General Congregations, Cardinal Bergoglio gave a short but powerful speech. According to O’Connell, Begoglio’s speech “touched hearts, and many more cardinals began to see him as the candidate to succeed Benedict.” In the speech, Cardinal Bergoglio discussed the need for boldness in evangelization. Furthermore, he diagnosed the “evils that . . . happen in ecclesial institutions” as having “their root in self-referentiality. The self-referential Church seeks to keep Jesus Christ within herself and does not let him out.” Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor said that some of the cardinals began to “wonder if they might not have heard the voice of the man who would lead the church to recover its vigor and give it a fresh sense of direction.”

Things solidified the night before the Conclave began. That evening a group of cardinals met at Cardinal Attilio Nicora’s Vatican apartment. The group of 15 or so cardinals included Cardinals Kasper, Murphy-O’Connor, Coccopalmerio, Maradiaga, and Turkson. O’Connell writes: “During the meeting, each one confirmed or revealed that he had decided to support Bergoglio on the first ballot, and also mentioned other cardinals that he believed were thinking along the same lines and could vote for him.” Cardinal Coccopalmerio kept “a tally” and at the end concluded that Bergoglio had at “least twenty-five votes” going into the Conclave. At least three cardinals who attended the meeting told O’Connell that “this was the decisive meeting.”

The Conclave

On the afternoon of March 12, 2013, the 155 cardinal-electors were sealed in the Sistine Chapel to begin the papal election. O’Connell gives a moving account of the pageantry of the Conclave. In the first vote, “twenty-three cardinals received at least one vote each on the first ballot.” The top vote getters were Scola (30), Bergoglio (26), Ouellet (22), O’Malley (10), and Scherer (4). 77 votes were needed to be elected.

Analyzing this first tally, O’Connell writes that, while to “an outsider, that scattered first vote might have given the impression of great uncertainty, . . . the electors saw it in a very different light.” “Scherer was out of the race; he was seen as a candidate of the status quo in a conclave that was looking for radical change.” This meant that other than Scola, there were three candidates: Bergoglio, Ouellet, and O’Malley. There was only one ballot on March 12. More voting would have to wait until the next day.

In the second ballot of the Conclave on March 13, the top four vote-getters were Bergoglio (45), Scola (38), Ouellet (24), and O’Malley (3). As O’Connell writes, this second vote “revealed a dramatic shift from the previous evening.” The shift continued. In the third vote, Bergoglio’s tally rose to 56. Scola gained three votes. Ouellet dropped to 14 votes. This showed that the “dynamic was clearly in Bergoglio’s favor.” According to O’Connell, “[m]any cardinals . . . interpreted it as a sign from the Holy Spirit that this was the man God was calling to be successor to Saint Peter.”

The cardinals then broke for lunch at Casa Santa Marta. During lunch, the human machinations that are so present in the history of the Church, broke out in earnest. The “allegation that Bergoglio has only one lung was spread during the lunch break by supporters of another candidate in a last-ditch effort to block his election.” Another rumor—which in light of recent revelations may have had some truth to it—was shared that Bergoglio had “allegedly ‘handled badly a case of abuse.’” Still, as several cardinals told O’Connell, “there was in fact little opposition to Bergoglio’s election.”

After lunch, the cardinal-electors returned to the Sistine Chapel to resume voting. The fourth vote resulted in the following tally: Bergoglio (67), Scola (32), Ouellet (13), Vallini (2), and O’Malley (1). Still, the requisite 2/3rds majority had not been reached, so the cardinals proceeded to another vote. Unfortunately, a cardinal cast a vote with a second blank ballot stuck to his first ballot. Thus, because there were 116 ballots, the vote was void. The cardinals immediately proceeded to vote again.

This sixth vote was decisive. Cardinal Bergoglio received 85 votes. The next closest was Scola with 20 votes. A new pope had been elected. Cardinal Bergoglio accepted his canonical election and informed the presiding cardinal, Cardinal Re, that he had selected the name Francis.

O’Connell concludes The Election of Pope Francis by stating that he wrote the book “to offer the reader a narrative from a historical perspective about what happened at [the] conclave. I hope I have succeeded.” O’Connell has. His book is a gripping narrative, a page-turner. O’Connell is an excellent reporter with deep sources. It is hard not to believe that this will be the definitive account of the 2013 Conclave. Some of O’Connell’s reporting will be old news. Much of it will be a revelation. His ability to weave all these threads together into a coherent narrative is a true gift and one for which O’Connell must be commended.

Postscript: Lingering Questions

At the same time, O’Connell’s book should leave any reader with many questions. While these questions are beyond the scope of O’Connell’s project, they point to work future journalists and historians will have to undertake.

The first set of questions involves the Sankt Gallen group. Why, for instance, were the cardinals who made up the Sankt Gallen group so enamored of Cardinal Bergoglio in 2005 and why did those cardinals who remained in 2013 have such a high opinion of him? We often hear of the continuity in the last three papacies but what was it about Cardinal Bergoglio that convinced the likes of Cardinal Kasper, Cardinal Danneels, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor and others that Cardinal Bergoglio would mark a departure from John Paul II and Benedict XVI (putting aside the question whether Francis’ papacy has actually been a departure from theirs)? One need not be a conspiracy theorist to be genuinely puzzled by this support of Cardinal Bergoglio by cardinals who hardly seem to think with the mind of the Church and who have battled the Magisterium.

The second set of questions involves the seeming disconnect between Cardinal Bergoglio’s inspiring and decisive speech at the General Congregations and the first seven years of Pope Francis’ papacy. That speech was about the Church going out from herself, bringing Christ to the world, not being inwardly focused. Thus, it is odd that much of the first seven years of this pontificate have been bogged down by questions and debates that already had been definitively resolved.

For instance, much of the first three or four years of Pope Francis’ papacy were consumed by debates regarding the question of communion for the divorced and remarried. This was not a new or unanswered question. Indeed, as recently as 2007, Pope Benedict had addressed the question in Sacramentum Caritatis.While the question is hardly unimportant—is marriage an objective reality in which people participate or an “ideal” to which people aspire—a renewed focus on the question in 2013, just a few years after the prior Pope had dealt with it, smacks of the very sort of “self-referentiality” and “theological narcissism” against which Cardinal Bergoglio rightly warned.

Then, following endless debates on that question, the last few years have seen a renewed focus on the question, hardly new and hardly unanswered, on whether or not married men should be ordained in the Latin Rite. Again, such a question certainly has implications for evangelizing, but it is the sort of secondary concern which seems the very sort of navel-gazing against which Pope Francis rightly warns. Future historians and journalists will have to answer why so much evangelical zeal and energy has been dissipated in these last seven years to relitigating the questions that roiled the Church in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s?

The seed of an answer may lie in O’Connell’s own narrative. O’Connell’s account suggests that the frame did not so much change as that these two questions in particular—communion for the divorced and remarried and ordination of mature men—were present from the very beginning in the lead up to the 2013 Conclave. Father Cantalamessa highlighted them in his opening mediation to the assembled cardinals. Cardinal Kasper reiterated the communion question during the interregnum in an interview with the media. It seems that despite Cardinal Bergoglio’s call for the Church to put aside such self-referentiality, there were others who seized the opportunity of a new pope to bring these internal questions back to the fore.

The third set of questions The Election of Pope Francis raises is the gap between what the cardinals were seeking in a pope—someone who could reform the Curia—and the seeming lack of reform seven years into the papacy. What are we to make between the yawning gap between what the cardinals saw as the need to reform the Curia and the actual results of that reform seven years into this papacy? One need only read Christopher Altieri’s indispensable work here and in other publications to see the halting nature of that reform. The scandals continue. The lack of transparency abounds. What basis did the cardinals have to believe that Cardinal Bergoglio had the experience and administrative skills to pull this feat off? Was it primarily because he was an outsider, not beholden to various Vatican coteries? Are the dismaying results of the reform an indication that the Curia is simply unreformable—that even an outsider like Pope Francis cannot reform the entrenched bureaucracy in the Vatican? Are they an indication that the cardinals did not vet their candidate strongly enough on their desired ends? Or are they ultimately a lesson in how any pope swaps out his predecessor’s preferred bureaucracy for his own?

The work to answer these questions will have to be taken up by other journalists and historians who share the sort of objectivity and fairness O’Connell brings to this book. The Election of Pope Francis will be an indispensable starting point for that work. Meanwhile, we should be grateful for O’Connell’s account and pray for Pope Francis and for his successors who will face the herculean task of walking in the shoes of the fisherman.